Organising free improvisers might seem like a fool’s task. Why would the special breed of players who spend their lives resolutely creating music from scratch suddenly want to submit to the will of a composer? Nevertheless, history proves that sometimes it works: notable successes were recorded by Michael Mantler with the original Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. Each project depended to some extent on the leader/composer’s familiarity with the techniques of contemporary European straight music, but the idea was given new impetus with the introduction of the looser and perhaps more organic-to-the-idiom technique of “conduction”, pioneered by the late Butch Morris and pursued by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey, among others. Slightly to one side were the adventures of the British duo Ashley Wales and John Coxon, known as Spring Heel Jack, who created stimulating modern environments for many individual improvisers, including Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai.
The first sound heard on Togetherness Music: For Sixteen Musicians, Alexander Hawkins’ new album, is that of Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, unwinding its always surprising coils of sound, the seemingly unbroken skeins of notes punctuated by split-second darts and lurches into other registers. As usual, it’s exhilarating and mesmerising, particularly when the sound of the isolated soprano blooms with reverberation, which may or may not be the natural property of Challow Park Studios in Oxfordshire, where the set was recorded. But then Hawkins introduces his other resources: the five string players of the Riot Ensemble and nine other musicians, including the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the saxophonist and flautist Rachel Musson, the cellist Hannah Marshall, the bassist Neil Charles, the drummer Mark Sanders, and Matthew Wright on electronics, all conducted by Aaron Hollway-Nahum. Gradually they add sombre pedal-points, heightening the atmosphere before Parker drops out and the strings begin to slip and slide until the piece ends, after almost 10 minutes, with several of them holding a tentative D natural.
Sanders and Pursglove are the next to get the concerto grosso for improvisers treatment, a layer of restless percussion under the silvery trumpet continuing into a dialogue with written lines for flute/bass clarinet and viola/cello. On the third piece Parker returns for a pointilliste conversation with Hawkins’ scrambling piano in which the Riot Ensemble make their full presence known, soaring and churning as the music holds itself together through some mysterious centripetal force.
Hawkins, the 16th musician, is featured on the fourth piece, against a walking line played by two basses (Charles and Marianne Schofield) and possibly one of the two cellos, too. Showing the pianist at his most inventive and hyper-alert, it has the loping gait and harmonically ambiguous flavour of the music created by young Cecil Taylor and the bassist with his early groups, Buell Neidlinger, before Parker pipes up with a reminder of another early Taylor collaborator, Steve Lacy, in a passage of ensemble agitation that resolves into an elegant, ruminative diminuendo.
The strings dominate the fifth piece, a collective statement in which the individual instruments glide around each other as if in mismatched orbits, the fine details of tone and timbre revealed within an aural space that feels busy yet uncluttered. The sixth and final composition opens with a trio of Charles, Sanders and Wright, bass and drums working around light electronic taps, thuds and crackles. Pursglove and Hawkins emerge with staccato trumpet figures and a purposefully wandering single-note piano line, continuing as Sanders briefly dominates with thrashing brushwork before the other musicians reappear in a crescendo of exultant sound. A graceful withdrawal gives the last word to Parker and Hawkins, two improvisers who share a near-infallible instinct for an ending.
The six pieces are titled, in order, “Indistinguishable from Magic”, “Sea No Shore”, “Ensemble Equals Together”, “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher”, “Ecstatic Baobabs” and “Optimism of the Will”. I’ve described them in such details because the more you listen, the more distinctive they become: each one a living organism with its own cellular structure, texture and micro-climate. I’ve said before that Hawkins has a rare understanding of how to combine composition and improvisation, and here, in this very special recording, we have a perfect example of his gift.
Perhaps I’ve found Togetherness Music particularly valuable because I’ve missed attending live performances of free improvisation very much over the past year. Recordings of small groups, however excellent, aren’t the same thing as hearing and seeing this music conjured in front of you. But by framing improvisation so creatively, Hawkins brings it to life in a different way.
* Alexander Hawkins’ Togetherness Music is out now on the Intakt label (www.intaktrec.ch)